Z is for Alexander Zass

This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.
Alexander Zass

Apart from The World’s Strongest Man, the idea of watching feats of strength for entertainment seems faintly ridiculous, but strongmen were once great box office and one of the greatest was Alexander Zass.

Zass was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1888, but lived in Russia for most of his early life. He served in the Russian army in WWI and was wounded and taken prisoner by the Austrians in 1914.

He escaped three times, eventually returning home. In 1924 he left Russia for the last time and made his way to Britain where he was to make his name as The Amazing Samson.

Lifting a girderZass wasn’t a big man. He stood five feet five inches tall and weighed 165 pounds, but he owed his strength to his own training methods.

He began at an early age using homemade dumbells and barbells and later trained under some of the great Russian strongmen, but his secret was his own system of isometrics.

Zass started by bending green branches and twigs to develop his grip strength and then the ‘maximum tension’ method still used in Russia today.

Carrying a horsePutting his strength to good use on the stage, Zass lifted a 500-pound girder with his teeth, carried a small horse, caught a woman fired from a cannon and allowed professional boxers to hit him in the stomach. But his greatest talents were in bending steel bars and breaking chains which were the centrepiece of his music hall exhibitions.

As well as being a strongman, Zass was also an accomplished animal trainer and once worked for military intelligence in Russia.

Zass told his amazing story in his autobiography published in 1926 which you can read online. He died in 1962 in Hockley, Essex, where he is also buried.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

11 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 9th January 2013

    Hmmm. You usually go on a bit longer…

    • Mr Parrot 9th January 2013

      Sorry Roger. My early draft published by mistake!

  • Richie 9th January 2013

    I enjoy learning about people. His story is amazing. I listen to the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and passed on your blog as a possible topic.
    An Arkies Musings

  • Leslie 9th January 2013

    An amaZing story of an amaZing man!

    abcw team

  • Katherine 10th January 2013

    Ah, I don’t know… I suspect there’s something very primal about watching strong men do tricks. As there’s also something very instinctive at work when people say admiringly (of an intricate painting) ‘Ooo, that must have taken you AGES!’

    I have this theory that we’ve admired persistence and strength from cave times.

  • Roger Green 10th January 2013

    Ah, MUCH more interesting than the initial 2 paragraphs!

  • Wanda 10th January 2013

    This was so interesting. I had never heard of Mr. Zass. A great way to end this Round.

  • Trevor Rowley 10th January 2013

    What is this thing about men wanting to be big and strong? When I was in my teens, I bought a “Bullworker” – a stange, pushandpull contraption devised by David Prowse (he had been a weightlifting champion who went on to be Darth Vader in whatever it was). It seemed to work fine at the time but I gradually reverted to my normal (under-muscled) self. I should really settle for my under-muscled self as all my forebears (in both my parents’ families) were coal miners and seemed to manage perfectly well in the industry for some centuries despite usually being about nine stone “wet through” and quite sinewy with it.

    As I became older, I observed that the only really big and bulky men around happened to have recently served a term at Her Majesty’s pleasure, where they frittered away their time in the prison gym lifting weights and planning their next “job” (not the regular kind, I hasten to add). More recently, we have had a mass obsession with signing on for gym memberships and the like with the sole objective of transforming a reasonably proportioned human male into something resembling a blow up doll.

    I travelled back from India a couple of years ago. In the queue at Delhi Airport was a chap wearing a three size too small teee shirt with the sleeves cut away to reveal his immense upper arm muscles. They no longer looked like muscles but were more like an accident where the owner has volunteered for a car tyre pump to be used on them – but the machine forgot to stop. What a strange sight he looked as he seemed to have insufficient strength to lift up his arms (let alone his luggage).

  • Meryl 10th January 2013

    Fascinating!!! I really enjoyed this post – thank you!

  • rhymeswithplague 10th January 2013

    So you’re finished with another round of the alphabet then.
    I salute you.

    I have a comment on Trevor’s comment. I thought James Earl Jones played Darth Vader in Star Wars. Who is this David Prowse person? Wait– never mind. I looked him up. James Earl Jones provided only the voice. David Prowse provided the visual. As Prowses go, however, I much prefer Juliet.

  • Thai Pudding 12th January 2013

    Next time I’m in Hockley, Essex I shall visit Mr Zass’s grave and leave a packet of extra strong mints. I have often felt a little hoarse but never lifted one!


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